Reading Beijing's World-View

Scholars and policy analysts seem almost obsessed with China's continuing rise toward the status of a great power. Debates rage about whether there is a "China threat" to East Asia or the United States, how to measure China's present military and economic power, and which trends best project China's growth into the next century. Less attention has been given to how Chinese government analysts view their own security environment. Because they influence the thinking of government decision-makers and are privy to their thoughts, an analysis of their views on security is valuable. By providing a better understanding of both China's baseline realpolitik view of international politics and two significant divergences from that baseline—Beijing's attitudes toward Japan and Taiwan—such a study can help contribute to a more prudent American East Asia strategy. [1]

China may well be the high church of realpolitik in the post-Cold War world. Its analysts certainly think more like traditional balance-of-power theorists than do most contemporary Western leaders and policy analysts.[2] For example, although China has not actively opposed multilateral humanitarian efforts, the rationales for international missions in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti are alien to the thinking of most Chinese analysts. They are also much less likely than their Western counterparts to emphasize political, cultural, or ideological differences with foreign countries. The United States considers the "enlargement of areas of democracy" a core element of its grand strategy, but China has made almost no effort, with the possible exception of its relations with North Korea, to export its ideas about "market socialism."

China is not interested in pressing either allies or rivals to comply with global norms of human rights. On occasion, it will return fire when a country criticizes its human rights record, but this seems purely tactical. It is hard to believe that Chinese elites are truly concerned with the plight of Native Americans, African-Americans in south central Los Angeles, or Turkish guest workers in Berlin. Chinese analysts raise these topics only when defending China from attack on human rights grounds.

China's elites are suspicious of many multilateral organizations, including those devoted to economic, environmental, nonproliferation, and regional security issues. In most cases, China joins such organizations to avoid losing face and influence. But Beijing does not allow these organizations to prevent it from pursuing its own economic and security interests. Chinese analysts often view international organizations and their universal norms as fronts for other powers. Particularly in times of tension with the United States, such as mid-1995 when the United States allowed Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit, they view complaints about China's violations of international norms or laws as part of an integrated Western strategy, led by Washington, to prevent China from becoming a great power. Many analysts, particularly those in the military, believe that criticisms by foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations are plots to keep Beijing off balance and encourage domestic forces bent on the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party or the breakup of the country.

China has not been cavalier in its attitudes toward multilateral organizations; it has been concerned and vigilant for reasons consistent with a hard-nosed view of international politics. For example, in 1994 Chinese analysts seemed wary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its new security forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Civilian and military experts were concerned that after Vietnam's acceptance into ASEAN, the organization might become an expanded, tacitly anti-Chinese alliance with links to the United States. China has argued against trying to create a formal security regime in Asia to parallel the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Its fear seems to have been that in a more formal ARF, China would play Gulliver to Southeast Asia's Lilliputians, with the United States supplying the rope and stakes. If ARF were to adopt specific norms of transparency and rules on force deployment, they reasoned, it might enable the region to monitor and limit the growth of China's ability to project power.

China has participated fully in ARF activities since 1994, and its attitudes toward the organization have clearly softened on a range of issues. But Beijing still seems reluctant to use the multilateral forum to settle sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, where islets, subject to overlapping territorial claims by the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei are sprinkled across a vast stretch of seabed believed to contain rich oil and mineral deposits. Since China is the most powerful claimant, its wariness about the potential formation of a local anti-Chinese coalition is fully in accord with traditional balance-of-power politics.


Chinese attitudes toward Japan mix elements of realpolitik with less antiseptic emotions rooted in China's bitter history of occupation by Japanese imperialists. Chinese security analysts, particularly military officers, anticipate and fear Japan's renaissance as a world-class military power in the early 21st century. These predictions are consistent with balance-of-power theories but not with the analysis of many Japan experts throughout the West, who believe that cultural pacifism after World War II, domestic political constraints, and economic interests will steer Japan away from such ambitions. Chinese analysts do not always dismiss these arguments out of hand, but many believe those obstacles will merely delay Japan's long-term military buildup. The two related and most important delaying factors, in the minds of these analysts, are the U.S.-Japan relationship, particularly the security alliance, and the political and economic stability of Japan. They believe that the United States, by reassuring Japan and providing its security on the cheap, fosters a political climate in which the Japanese public remains opposed to buildup and the more hawkish elements of the Japanese elite are kept at bay. If, however, the U.S.-Japan security alliance either comes under strain or undergoes a transformation in which Japan assumes a much more prominent military role, then, Chinese analysts believe, the ever-present hawks could more easily foment militarization.

Realpolitik would predict that the one-sided U.S.-Japan alliance will collapse after the demise of the common Soviet enemy. But Beijing's dread of various scenarios for change goes beyond the abstract logic of balance-of-power politics. According to that logic, China should be at least as concerned about coercion or attack by the world's only superpower, the United States, as about the remilitarization of Japan. As Secretary of Defense William Perry recently reminded China, America has by far the strongest military in the western Pacific. If one considers only military power, one might expect China to welcome the ejection of American forces from Japan and the rise of a new regional power that, in collaboration with China, might counter American regional hegemony. One might argue that Japan's geographic proximity alone would make a new regional power more of a threat to China than the more distant United States. But having lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers fighting the American military in the Korean War, China is unlikely to consider the United States a removed power. In any case, a conclusion about which nation poses a greater threat to China—a distant superpower or a local great power—cannot be reached by Chinese analysts or Western scholars weighing the international balance of power alone. It must be based largely on historical legacies and national perceptions.

The real reason that Chinese military and civilian analysts are so afraid of a breakdown or a fundamental change in the U.S.-Japan alliance is a historically rooted and visceral distrust of Japan. Although they harbor suspicion toward the United States, they view Japan with even less trust and, in many cases, with a loathing rarely found in attitudes toward America. This is more a legacy of Japanese atrocities in the 1930s than a byproduct of contemporary Japanese power.[3] Like many other countries in the region, China seems grateful that America restrains Japanese militarization by guaranteeing Japanese security and replacing what would otherwise be Japanese aircraft carriers and marines with American ones. Although Chinese analysts are rarely so direct as to say that American forces should stay in Japan indefinitely, they are quick to say that they hope the United States will not leave anytime soon.

Through 1993 China's civilian and military analysts had similar takes on Japanese remilitarization. Japan's reemergence as a great power after World War II had been interpreted as the goal of a three-part grand strategy long pursued by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership: first, become an economic superpower; next, a political superpower, by using increased economic aid and coercion and securing a Security Council seat; and finally, a significant military power that would vie for regional power and project force around the world. Many Chinese analysts were pessimistic about the ability of the U.S.-Japan security arrangement or domestic pacifism in Japan to prevent the timely completion of this long-term design.

In 1994 and 1995 this consensus seemed to break down in ways that may soon influence China's defense policy and international posture. Many analysts were influenced by Clinton administration pronouncements in 1994 and by the February 1995 Department of Defense East Asia strategy report, which underscored the importance for American post-Cold War strategy of the U.S.-Japan security alliance and the maintenance of at least 100,000 U.S. troops in the region. Some who had been skeptical about America's commitment to the region were reassured that the Soviet collapse and U.S. domestic politics were not going to render the remaining superpower isolationist and self-absorbed. Many Chinese analysts still agreed on the threat posed by the long-term goals of some Japanese elites, but the more liberal and moderate analysts in Beijing believed that, despite the domestic political shakeups in Japan, the desire for economic and social stability could dissuade Japan from launching any significant military initiatives, such as massive increases in defense spending or abrogation of the current Japanese ban on forces designed to project power more than 1,000 nautical miles from the home islands (e.g., aircraft carriers or aerial refueling planes). Also, these analysts seemed willing to believe that the U.S. military might be indefinitely engaged in the region, particularly in Japan.

Conservative Chinese analysts, many of whom are in the military, remained more skeptical about the durability of the American brake on Japan's military modernization. In 1993 and 1994, several of these analysts argued that the lack of a common enemy meant that Japan and the United States not only lost an incentive to cooperate in the western Pacific but gained an incentive to compete for economic and military influence in the region. They argued that the bilateral alliance would be poisoned by several factors: the effect of trade disputes and nationalist issues on domestic politics in both nations, the natural laws of international politics, and the zero-sum nature of Japanese and American rivalry in East Asia.

Since early 1995, Chinese security elites have found a new source of pessimism in the Clinton administration statements about "upgrading" or "strengthening" the U.S.-Japan defense relationship. If it were to occur, a U.S. withdrawal from Japan would still worry Chinese analysts most. However, America's presence in East Asia is only reassuring because it replaces—not strengthens—Japanese military forces. American efforts to improve Japanese defense technologies, introduce new weapons systems, and, most recently, encourage an expansion of Japanese roles in joint operations are perceived to undercut that role. The February 1995 Department of Defense East Asia strategy report received mixed responses from Beijing analysts. They seemed relieved that the United States set a formal floor for the size of its regional forces. However, they seemed worried by the suggestion that Japan and the United States might develop new weapons systems, including theater missile defense systems (TMD), that might counter China's deterrent capabilities against both Japan and Taiwan.

In the past, Chinese experts have worried about seemingly innocuous changes in Japan's defense policy, such as sending peacekeepers to Cambodia and minesweepers to the Persian Gulf. So the seemingly mild changes in policy that President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto announced in the April 1996 U.S.-Japan communiqué—e.g., increased Japanese logistic support for American missions in the region and consideration of future cooperation on theater missile defense systems—triggered strong negative responses from Beijing. Chinese analysts argue that unless the U.S.-Japan alliance were to turn sharply against Beijing and seek to contain China, little upgrading would be needed. Moreover, they believe that new roles for the Japanese military would only encourage independence from the United States and the development of Japan's force projection capabilities. One Chinese military analyst warned against American efforts to strengthen Japan's defense capabilities by citing a traditional Chinese expression, yang hu yi huan, which means, "When one raises a tiger, one courts calamity."

Whether or not they believe American abandonment or encouragement might spark Japanese militarization, few Chinese military or civilian analysts seem to believe that Chinese behavior could have much effect on the timing or intensity of a Japanese military buildup. Chinese analysts seem incredulous that Japan, given its history of aggression toward China dating back to the 1890s, could sincerely view China as a threat and alter its defense policy accordingly. If the current U.S.-Japan security relationship seems to be in trouble, there is likely to be a widening consensus among Chinese analysts that China should quickly build up its military power and settle various sovereignty disputes in the East and South China seas, by force, if necessary. Otherwise, China would have much less leverage against a Japanese navy and air force that is larger and could project power effectively into those areas. Chinese analysts realize that if Japan decided to strengthen its military capabilities its technological and economic base would allow it to do so quickly. They point to Tokyo's ongoing investment in defense-related technologies and to its defense budget, which is small as a percentage of GNP but second only to America's in absolute size. Although outside observers might believe that China would be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by anticipating an eventual Japanese buildup and threatening Japanese interests in the near term, most Chinese analysts do not believe China's behavior will affect Japanese policy. Consequently, Beijing is unlikely to factor Japanese fears of China into its policy equation.

Chinese analysts vary widely in their degree of pessimism about the likely pace and intensity of Japanese militarization, but there is a basic consensus that Japanese power would be more threatening than American power and that the status quo in the U.S.-Japan security arrangement—without upgrades—is desirable. This view is not immutable, however, and when the United States appears to be threatening core Chinese security interests, particularly the one-China policy barring Taiwanese independence, the U.S.-Japan alliance is perceived in a different light. In the summer of 1995, after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's visit to Cornell University, Chinese analysts began to view the United States and Japan as collaborators in an attempt to break Taiwan away from the mainland. Suddenly American forces were not guarantors of Japanese restraint but instruments of tacit Japanese designs on China. The deployment of two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups to Taiwan during Chinese missile exercises in March (including the Independence, based in Yokosuka, Japan) almost certainly affected Beijing's negative reaction to President Clinton's April trip to Japan and the resulting U.S.-Japan communiqué‚.


Another area where realpolitik alone cannot account for Beijing's security attitudes is China's violent opposition to Taiwan's legal independence. China will almost certainly use force against Taiwan or Taiwanese interests (for example, shipping and offshore islands) if Taipei actively seeks independence. China will act even if it means damaging its profitable trade and investment relations with Taiwan, and it will do so regardless of the level of the U.S. military commitment to Taiwan's security. Since realpolitik would suggest attention to political realities, not legalities, it is puzzling why the change from de facto independence, which Taiwan has had since 1949, to legal independence would drive China to risk damage to its economy and war with the world's only superpower. But there is convincing evidence that China is prepared to do just that.

In China's century of humiliation, which began with a loss to the British in the Opium War and ended with the surrender of Japan in World War II, no event was more demeaning than the 1895 defeat at the hands of Japan, after which Taiwan was ceded to Tokyo. For the traditional Chinese state, it was degrading enough to be vanquished by "barbarians" from far-off lands like Britain and France. But given China's historical superiority to its tributary neighbors, succumbing to a local power was a much greater blow. Although Taiwan had little material value for China at the time, it became a symbol of this national tragedy. For Chinese, the return of Taiwan to China after World War II, as promised by the United States and Britain in the 1943 Cairo Declaration, was also a symbol of China's considerable contribution to the death of Japanese imperialism. Rectifying the century of humiliation is a core nationalist goal for any modern Chinese regime, and that means preventing the loss of Taiwan.

Preventing Taiwan's independence would be important to any Chinese regime, but it is a critical nationalist issue for the Chinese Communist Party government. The party has, by way of market reforms, all but obliterated the second of the two adjectives in its name. Almost no influential figure in Chinese government or society believes in communism anymore, and that has created a vacuum that nationalism, always a strong element in the party's legitimacy, is filling. As many analysts have noted, nationalism is the sole ideological glue that holds the People's Republic together and keeps the CCP government in power. Since the Chinese Communist Party is no longer communist, it must be even more Chinese.

As continuing economic reforms and exposure of the Chinese people to Western ideas and international news cut ever more deeply into CCP legitimacy, there are few issues left that do not trigger debate and exacerbate tensions between the state and society. Yet in all sectors of politically aware Chinese society a consensus remains on the legitimacy of using force, if necessary, to prevent Taiwan's independence. On that issue one is almost as likely to hear a hawkish reaction from scholars who protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as from a military officer who fired on them.

Chinese leaders will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent Taiwan's independence in part because they fear a national breakup. Chinese analysts believe that national integrity would be threatened by an uncontested declaration of Taiwanese independence, especially because of the decades of propaganda about Taiwan's unbreakable links to the motherland. They subscribe to a domestic domino theory in which the loss of one piece of sovereign territory will encourage separatists elsewhere and hurt morale among the Chinese forces who must defend national unity. Their most notable concerns are with traditionally non-Han regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia.

Not surprisingly, People's Liberation Army officers are even more hawkish than civilian analysts on sovereignty issues, particularly Taiwan. To justify increasing military budgets after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was regarded as China's main military threat, the army needs a mission, and defending sovereignty is not a hard sell. On political grounds, tensions with Taiwan make the military even more important in the succession struggles that will follow the death of Deng Xiaoping. Although few China experts in the West expect a military coup, almost all believe that the military will play kingmaker. Gaining early military support and avoiding opposition from the military should prove critical to any leader hoping to succeed Deng.

PLA leaders, particularly the influential officers living in and around Beijing, also desperately want to regain their social standing after the Tiananmen massacre. Almost all PLA officers believe that the pro-democracy protests should have been suppressed forcibly, but several expressed embarrassment over the level of force used and the damage to the military's image. Chinese military officers, like professional soldiers around the world, take pride in their work. The chance to show that their main mission is defending national integrity, not shooting unarmed civilians, will not be forfeited lightly.

One may get the impression that civilian leaders will grapple with Taiwan as a central issue if there is a succession struggle following Deng's death. Although attempts to endear themselves to the military and hard-liners may make economically oriented technocrats more macho and nationalistic, the jockeying is more likely to manifest itself in their attitudes toward the defense budget, the Spratly Islands disputes, or Western criticism of Chinese human rights violations than in their opposition to Taiwan's independence. Strong differences of opinion apparently have formed between more moderate and more hawkish Chinese over the wisdom of using military exercises to deter Taiwan from pursuing independence. Many elites apparently had strong reservations about the last and most provocative round of exercises in March, before the Taiwanese elections. But these differences would likely disappear if Taiwan appeared to be on the brink of declaring independence. In that case a broad consensus, including dovish liberal technocrats as well as hawkish conservatives, would likely form around a hard-line policy.

Succession struggles are not meaningless, however. The political process may make China more sensitive about what constitutes a significant move toward independence by President Lee Teng-hui's government. Taiwan's self-styled "pragmatic diplomacy" has been presented publicly as a bid to increase the island's diplomatic space and recognition without abandoning the one-China principle that Taipei has so strongly adhered to since 1949. But Beijing believes that Lee is tacitly pursuing independence. Chinese analysts say that Lee has not said so in public for purely pragmatic reasons, the most important of which is the threat of violent retaliation from the mainland. When nerves are raw in Beijing and succession politics are under way, Taipei must be very careful not to take actions that might seem mild in Taipei and elsewhere but might be interpreted in Beijing as significant advances toward independence.


By keeping American forces in Japan, the United States can simultaneously reassure Japan and its major potential rival, China, and thereby stabilize the region. Washington should do more than stay engaged; it should reassure Japan and other regional powers publicly and often that it intends to do so indefinitely. Any suggestion that the United States might withdraw its forces from Japan may set off an arms race, escalating tensions, and self-fulfilling prophecies about Japanese militarization, all of which will destabilize the region. Chinese security analysts watch closely what the United States says about its relationship with Japan, and the division between Chinese conservatives and moderates is most visible in predictions about the hardiness of the current U.S.-Japan defense arrangement. Anything that underscores America's long-term commitment to protect Japan with American forces will have a positive impact on China and helps the moderate analysts sell their message of stability and optimism to CCP leaders. Anything that suggests either fragility or fundamental reform in the U.S.-Japan security relationship has a negative impact on China and helps conservative, hard-line analysts sell their portrayal of a threat from Japan and prescriptions for a tougher Chinese security posture. For example, any linkage of the U.S.-Japan security arrangement with reduction of America's trade deficit with Japan would be irresponsible because it would quickly be interpreted in Beijing as an omen of discord in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Encouraging Japan to take on more military roles also may not be a good short-term strategy. For example, the United States should weigh carefully the political cost of U.S.-Japan TMDS against their military benefits. The political implications should be taken at least as seriously as the political costs of ballistic missile defenses and scrapping the Antiballistic Missile Treaty for America's Russia policy. Since China, like Russia, is in a transition period, U.S.-Japan TMD should be considered using a similar type of cost-benefit analysis.

The United States should make a clear distinction between its general goal of spreading democracy and its policy on Taiwanese sovereignty. Taiwanese democracy and Taiwanese independence are logically and morally separate issues. The United States should support the former and distance itself from the latter. Indeed, if the United States wants to spread democracy, it should encourage Taiwan to remain nominally part of China. When Taiwan claims to be both Chinese and democratic, it puts the lie to Beijing officials' claim that Chinese culture and Western-style democracy do not mix. In the "enlargement" strategy of the United States, China is a prize 55 times larger than Taiwan. American idealists should not be myopic and settle for current Taiwanese independence at the expense of future Chinese democracy.

Until tensions settle down, both in relations between Taipei and the mainland and in the succession politics of Beijing, Washington should discourage President Lee from aggressively pursuing his pragmatic diplomacy agenda. For example, Washington should not only refuse to support Taiwan's bid for entry into the United Nations, it should discourage Taipei from vigorously pursuing that goal in the near term. The United States should provide a guarantee of support for Taiwanese security, including direct American intervention if necessary, but this guarantee should be conditional: Taiwan's democracy will be assisted only if it does not provoke an attack by moving toward formal independence.

Even generally hawkish military and civilian analysts in Beijing have firmly stated that the current Chinese government would never attack Taiwan out of the blue, so it would be fair to deduce that a reversal in this policy would carry grave implications. A China that would launch an unprovoked, military reunification campaign that violates its own economic and political interests would have to be a radically more aggressive China. The United States would have to contain such a China vigorously or expect to face it in battle soon. For either of those tasks, Taiwan is a better platform than most.

If, however, Taiwan takes provocative diplomatic steps toward a more independent legal status, the United States should let Taiwan know unequivocally that it will also stand alone in security matters. Taiwan and the United States stand to lose too much in a fight against the mainland, particularly for the mere purpose of transforming a de facto reality—Taiwan's independence—into a legal one. If Taiwan declared independence and was then attacked by the mainland, one could not draw conclusions about Beijing's expansionist designs any more than one could draw conclusions about American expansionism from the northern states' reaction to the South's secession. If Taiwanese independence provokes the attack, Taiwan could hardly be portrayed as China's Sudetenland, and American aloofness could not be compared to Chamberlain's appeasement at Munich.

Some American security analysts believe that Taiwan is a logical place for Washington to draw the first unconditional containment line around any potential Chinese aggression. Taiwan is, as MacArthur said long ago, an unsinkable aircraft carrier, and it has a strong military and economy with which the United States could join forces. But if the United States were to draw a line in the Taiwan Strait now and offer unconditional assurances to Taiwan, this would encourage Taiwanese independence and spark hypernationalism in China, creating just the kind of expansionist, hard-line regime in Beijing that America and everyone else in the region fears.

On military grounds alone, Washington should recognize that, while Taiwan may be an unsinkable aircraft carrier, it is also an immovable one. Although China probably could not invade Taiwan successfully even if America stood on the sidelines, the United States can do little to defend Taiwan from attacks that, though a far cry from invasion, would devastate its economy. China can use force effectively against Taiwan without the slightest pretense of a D-Day-style invasion. The mere announcement that shipping around Taiwan was no longer safe from assault would cripple Taiwan's trade-dependent economy. If a few missiles landed in Taipei, the stock market there would likely crash. The drop in Taipei stocks from the first P.R.C. missile exercises last July to the last round of exercises preceding this year's March 23 elections testifies to the danger of even limited threats, let alone force.

In March the Clinton administration may have finally found a balance in its policy toward the dispute over Taiwan. Although the current leadership in Beijing was almost certainly not preparing to attack Taiwan even if America stood idly by, Washington's deployment of two carrier battle groups to the area sent a long-term signal to any hypernationalists in Beijing who might vie for power after Deng's death: the cost of an unprovoked attack on Taiwan will likely be high. At the same time, the United States avoided the politically provocative and militarily imprudent option of placing carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Strait itself.

Although it received far less news coverage than the deployment of the carriers, an even more important message was apparently sent to Taiwan through back channels and carefully worded public statements by high-level administration officials: Washington supports Taiwan's security conditionally, and it expects Taipei to avoid provoking the mainland. While the United States cannot and should not dictate policy to the democratically elected government of Taiwan, it should stress the dangers and costs of certain options so that Taiwanese officials do not base their strategic policies on misperceptions and false hopes of unconditional U.S. support.

The United States should not limit its regional role to helping Taiwan defend against unprovoked attack. Instead, it should continue to commit itself to the peaceful settlement of the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. The United States need not and should not take sides there, but it should guarantee peaceful resolutions. By doing so, the United States is not "containing" China, it is protecting international sea-lanes in the region.

This policy is more prudent than a containment policy and an unconditional commitment to Taiwan's security. Beijing's claim to the Spratly Islands does not carry the same emotional baggage as its claim to Taiwan. By adopting a neutral stance on the sovereignty disputes, the United States would reduce the risk of appearing imperialistic and fueling Chinese hypernationalism. Most important, the United States would be taking actions with the express purpose of protecting Japan's sea-lanes. A large percentage of Japan's trade and the majority of its oil imports from the Middle East pass through those international waters, and keeping them open and safe is a vital security interest for Japan. If the United States explained to China and all other regional actors that the alternative to U.S. Navy patrols would be Japanese navy patrols, the message probably would not fall on deaf ears.

America has huge stakes in the political transitions of China and other East Asian nations. By remaining engaged in the region and rejecting short-sighted strategies such as a Cold War-style containment policy toward China, the United States will improve the odds that China's next generation of leaders will be moderate at home and abroad. As the differences between Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong make clear, leadership matters, especially in nondemocratic countries. Chinese elites' current realpolitik tendencies are infinitely preferable to the messianic versions of Chinese nationalism that might come to the fore if the United States, Japan, or other powers treat Beijing as an enemy. By engaging China and encouraging its participation in multilateral forums and confidence-building regimes, over the long term the United States may help soften China's skepticism about these institutions, which could help stabilize East Asia.

[1] For this essay, I conducted dozens of interviews with military and civilian government analysts during three separate month-long trips to Beijing. These government think tank analysts are not decision-makers, but they advise and brief decision-makers in all relevant government organizations: the People's Liberation Army, the Foreign Ministry, the State Council, and the Chinese intelligence agencies. The research trips were hosted by the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations.

[2] I argue that, in general, Chinese security analysts think about their nation's security like Western scholars of realpolitik (e.g., E. H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and Henry Kissinger). One recent work argues that realpolitik thinking in China may have its roots in the dynastic era. See Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

[3] For the classic study of China's attitudes toward Japan, see Allen S. Whiting, China Eyes Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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  • Thomas J. Christensen is assistant professor of government at Cornell University and author of Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-58 from Princeton University Press. Research for this article was funded by the Asia Security Project at Harvard University's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.
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